In a historic election year, women are the force for democratic renewal

Never before would so many people worldwide heed Bob Marley’s rousing anthem to “Stand up for your rights” — particularly the most basic, central right in a democracy — the right to vote.  

With half the world voting in over 80 national elections, 2024 will be the biggest election year in history. While some elections may not be fully free and fair, the voices of over half the populace — the voices of women — might be severely constrained.     

Women face barriers to equal and active political participation at every stage of the electoral cycle. Some countries bar women from voting or serving in office altogether. Others curtail women’s access to register to vote for lacking identity documents. 

While one billion people worldwide cannot vote because they lack official identity documents, the World Bank estimates that 1 in 2 women in low-income countries does not have an official ID, limiting their access to participate in political life. Married women often face more identity proof requirements than married men when applying for a national ID card. Further, women engaged in unpaid care work — a staggering total of 12.5 billion hours a year — are turned away for inability to pay fees. 

Despite these hurdles, in dozens of countries, more women than men tend to turn out to vote. 

Denigration and defamation of women, amplified by social media and tech platforms, are perils that carry exponential harm during elections. Women voters encounter violence during elections and political processes. Frequently such violence intends to deter women from civic participation, but there are ways to forecast, monitor and mitigate its impact.  

Alarmingly, attacks against citizen observers and electoral officials have been on the rise. In the U.S., women make up nearly 80 percent of election administrators and are at greater risk of gender-based harassment and threats forcing their departure; a liability of serious consequence in a major election year.

Perhaps the top reason women cite for exiting and increasingly never even entering politics is the virulent harassment and vitriol thrown at them. Not for their policies, perspectives or platforms, but for being women, their appearances, their sexuality, their intimate lives and the quality of their parenting. This is a level of abuse their political male peers are mostly shielded from. 

While a global phenomenon, these gendered attacks are often local, and frequently from women candidates’ own political party. The ripple effects are undeniable: from impact on women politicians’ mental health struggles to countless young women worldwide watching and internalizing the cycle of women in politics being shamed and discredited.  

State-based and affiliated actors join forces with opportunistic trolls to flood communication channels with misogyny and gendered threats (rape is particularly popular) to drown out and delegitimize the voices and votes of women. Whether as voters, election observers, electoral body officials, civic leaders or candidates, women’s participation provokes targeted hostilities designed to chill their participation, curtail their influence and eliminate them from seeking power. After all, nothing seems to scare authoritarians more than women’s equality.

But this pernicious toll, borne by women leaders personally, erodes democracy as a whole. 

Despite these challenges, initiatives to fight violence against women in politics by the National Democratic Institute (where I am a senior advisor for gender and democracy) such as the #NotTheCost campaign are gaining traction, as well as promising interventions to combat online violence.  

National government-led multi-stakeholder initiatives like the Global Partnership for Action Against Gender-Based Online Harassment and Abuse are focused on key principles such as safety by design, establishing response mechanisms and identifying effective tools and approaches to combat gendered disinformation.  

Moreover, activists, especially young women, are ground-truthing progressive democratic values, leading protests and calls for transformative change. This growing trend of young women turning to progressive priorities by emphasizing inclusive, equitable approaches is undercut by their male peers’ views hostile to gender equality.  

As the world views of young men and women seem to drift apart, a 2023 United Nations Development Program gender social norms survey found that almost 9 out of 10 men and women worldwide still hold gender biases today, with half of people worldwide believing men make better political leaders than women. These attitudes are reflected in the stagnated 26 percent world average of women members of parliament. 

Political parties continue to act as gatekeepers to women’s political leadership. Countries with parliamentary quotas often comply with requirements in ways that do not ensure women will win seats. This does not bode well for enshrining women’s political participation and leadership as a prerequisite for democracy.  

Why is this important? Having studied several hundred political revolutions since 1945, Harvard professors Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks found that though revolutionary male leaders are lionized, women’s work undergirds more effective political movement strategies and their inclusion predicts the subsequent success and sustainability of hard-fought democracies. 

While women leaders consistently display more effective leadership skills, they are in danger of disproportionately shouldering the burden of crisis management and democratic turnarounds. The glass ceiling must not become a glass cliff, setting up newly minted women leaders for failure. 

“We will know whether democracy lives or dies by the end of 2024,” warns Nobel Prize laureate journalist Maria Ressa, herself the target of online violence. Accelerating support for women’s full, meaningful and equal electoral and political participation is essential to ensuring that it lives and renews.

Tzili Mor is a senior advisor for gender and democracy at the National Democratic Institute. 

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